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Getting real about raw milk

Advocates claim that health benefits outweigh risks

By Bobbi Seidel |

Unpasteurized milk, also called real or raw milk, tastes good and is healthy too, says Lori Radcliffe of Ocean Township. (STAFF PHOTO: MARY FRANK)

When Lori Radcliffe drinks a glass of cold, unpasteurized milk, she enjoys the taste … and the health benefits.

Raw milk became part of her diet after her mother's death at 72 in 2007 spurred her to do some research, says Radcliffe, 46, a registered nurse and nutrition counselor.

"Her parents lived until their 90s. I looked at information about her heart, her fats,
cholesterol, the buzz words, blood sugar. They were normal,'' says the Ocean Township resident. "She really died, from what I could find, from malnutrition. She was eating the wrong foods.

"I haven't had hay fever since I started drinking real milk. I noticed within two or three weeks I was breathing differently,'' says Radcliffe, whose diet also now includes raw vegetables or fruit at each meal, full-fat foods, essential fatty acids and grassfed, hormone-free beef. "It looks like regular milk, but it tastes a little bit sweeter.''

Radcliffe isn't alone in choosing unpasteurized milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that 3 percent, or about a million people, drink it, says Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Westin A. Price Foundation. The nutrition education group was founded "to provide accurate, science-based information about nutrition.''

But Radcliffe can't buy raw milk in New Jersey. Sales of the milk are illegal, as in many other states, because of safety issues. In states where sales are allowed, laws differ on where and how it can be sold. A bill that would legalize sales in New Jersey remains in committee.

Radcliffe drives to Pennsylvania to buy the milk.

"It can't be sold across state lines, but you can go purchase it and bring it back. People pay up to $12 a gallon,'' says Radcliffe, who is frequently asked by New Jerseyans where to buy raw milk.

"People in the public health community are firmly against raw milk being allowed for sale,'' says Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers University. "Milk was one of the first foods to be required to be pasteurized. This is because back when that was instituted in the early part of the 20th century .‚.‚. people were getting sick because there were dangerous bacteria present in the milk.

"Pasteurization is a fancy word for heating. The heat kills bacteria that are present. There are obviously flavor changes and nutritional changes any time you heat anything,'' he says. "The question is, "What are you losing, and what are you gaining?' You're losing small amounts of some nutrients, but you're gaining a significant increase in safety.''

Food poisoning associated with raw milk still occurs, he says. From 1998 to 2005, 45 outbreaks associated with raw milk or cheese resulted in more than 1,000 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There is an inherent risk with all food,'' Radcliffe says. "Sure, people can get sick off raw milk, but you have to get it from a healthy cow. I do not think raw milk is dangerous.''

Proponents cite research supporting raw milk's benefits: A University of London study reported in 2006 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found people who lived on farms and drank raw milk had fewer symptoms of asthma, hay fever and eczema and were 40 percent less likely to develop eczema and 10 percent less likely to get hay fever.

Similar findings were reported in 2007 in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Morell says, adding, "the younger the child started drinking raw milk, the stronger the correlation of protection.''

About 23 states, including New Jersey, don't allow sales. Four of those … Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and North Dakota … allow it sold for pets, she says. In some of the 23, "share'' programs allow consumers access to raw milk by buying a share of a cow or a herd or stock in a farm.

Eight states allow retail sales: California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Connecticut. In New York, dairy farms can sell to consumers, she says.

A hearing on a bill that would allow sales in New Jersey was held in May before the Assembly Agriculture Committee, led by Assemblyman Nelson T. Albano, D-Cape May. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Marcia A. Karrow, R-Hunterdon, who also backed sales as an assemblywoman.

In an e-mail, Karrow wrote that her sponsorship was "in response to dairy farmers in my district who are continuing to struggle to make ends meet in this state.'' Because New Jerseyans must buy raw milk in Pennsylvania or New York, "studies show that New Jersey's dairy farmers are losing nearly $1 million to their competing dairy farmers.''

If the bill becomes law, it would help the state dairy industry, she says. Pasteurized milk still would be for sale.

At the hearing, a dairy farmer spoke against the bill, citing repercussions if safety issues arise. Another supported the bill.

The committee did not vote. More hearings have not been scheduled yet, says Jonathan Atwood, Albano's legislative director.

"We're trying to get more information and to meet with people on both sides of the issue. It does not appear a vote is going to happen before November, and no date has been set,'' he says.

Karrow says the bill is "a consumer choice issue.''

Radcliffe agrees.

"You should have the choice. That's the bottom line,'' Radcliffe says.

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